Board, PAEA reps: Yes, we’re making progress

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Despite the fact that the Punxsutawney Area School District teacher’s contract expired last June, both sides say the negotiations continue toward a settlement.

Don Gill, president of the Punxsutawney Area Education Association (PAEA), and Gary Conrad, Punxsutawney Area School Board president, agreed to a joint interview to discuss exactly where the negotiations stand at this point.

Gill said the union and board actually began negotiations as an early bird prior to the six months before the former contract expired when formal negotiations are permitted to begin.

“Both sides wanted to begin early because we wanted to get the ball rolling, as both sides have wanted to take a proactive approach in the negotiations,” Gill said, adding that the negotiations have been ongoing for more than a year.

“I think we’ve both negotiated in good faith and fairly with each other,” he said. “Both sides are of the belief if we are going to get something done, we have to do it in a manner we both can feel free to speak to each other about, compromise and feel free to negotiate with each other.”

Conrad said the difference in negotiations from the last contract — which was settled June 21, 2007 — is that there has been no animosity between the two sides.

The former contract was a seven-year agreement retroactive to July 1, 2004, and expired June 30, 2011, and represented average wage increases of $1,600 per year and paid 100 percent of the premium costs of eligible teachers’ health care insurance.

The last negotiations featured several work stoppages by the PAEA.

“Most of the negotiations have been between board members and the association without representation on either side,” Conrad said.

The board is being represented this time by Carl P. Beard of the law firm Andrews & Beard, Altoona, a firm that concentrates its practice in the areas of labor, employment, school and municipal law, Conrad said.

Gill said the association is represented by Richard J. Casti, Uniserv representative for the PAEA.

“We have to follow a process, which gets lost sometimes with those who aren’t involved with the negotiations,” he said. “It’s not a hard process, but at the same time, it’s not easy, as we have to follow certain guidelines.”

Gill said as part of the negotiations process, the board and the association have had a state mediator present for several meetings.

“What he did was to propose to negotiate a certain way,” Gill said, adding that type of negotiation being utilized is called a final settlement offer, which maintains the integrity of negotiations. The final settlement offer gives both sides a forum in which to discuss its issues while also making progress.

Conrad said Eric Sanoba, Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry mediator, has been a big help in the process.

“He has the expertise and uses techniques that have worked for him in the past,” Gill said. “That is where we are at, and we’ll continue to negotiate until we come to an agreement. I feel as long as we continue down these lines we can come up with a new contract. Do we always agree? Heck no, but we respect each other.”

Gill said the public needs to know what the status of the negotiations are.

“This is where we are and where we’ve been; it’s not about particulars,” he said.

Conrad also said Superintendent Dr. Keith Wolfe has been instrumental in the negotiations by taking a low-key approach.

“He has been helpful with some ideas along the line,” Conrad said, adding that Susan H. Robertson, district business manager, has had a lot of input, too.

When the process first began, the meetings were published and open to the full board before it formed a committee, Conrad said.

“As the negotiations progressed, I chose the board members who showed the most interest in the process,” he said.

Gill said the association has a healthy respect for the board and its members, and they will continue to work toward a settlement.

PAEA members continue to work under the terms of the former contract, he said.